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Public And Private Records

( Originally Published 1893 )



THE desire to study the history, either of the place in which we live or the family we represent, is natural only to the minority who think of the past at all. As Bishop Stubbs says : ` It is really a curious thing that, in days in which the doctrine of heredity is taking its place as a scientific axiom, men should flatter themselves that they are self-made, and not care to explore what their ancestors did for them.' But this minority will in the future, we may be sure, rapidly increase in numbers, and even now it is worth while to devote some pages to their interests. For many do not in the least know how to begin their research ; and until some elements of palæography are learnt, there is a feeling of distaste, not unmingled with a sort of dread, when original records are first placed before them. The manuscripts appear so bare and strange, divested of the explanatory setting in which they are placed in our printed histories, and at first sight so odd and unreadable, not to say worn and dirty. Yet there is no better or more bracing exercise for a student of history than to work through for himself a Court Roll or Inquisition, or even an ordinary Deed of Gift of a period in which he is interested. It is original, and not dressed up in modern apparel with introduction and notes : it is as the men of that day left it, in absolute integrity. And there are few better tests of intellect than the endeavour to see the ` points,' the bearing of isolated facts, the relative importance of details, presented to us in an original document. The present chapter will give an outline of the commonest kinds of English record other than chronicles, letters, and set literary productions. We will begin with Public Records, and only premise that it is a well-considered rule that researchers should first make use of all printed information before they systematically explore manuscript sources.

England is quite exceptional in the extent and continuity of her historical documents. No nation can show a book which can range with Domesday Book, the grandest and among the earliest of English records. The two volumes of the work, now pre-served in the Public Record Office, contain a survey of all England, except Northumberland, Cumber-land, Westmoreland, and Durham, made in A.D. 1085-1086, of which no better account can be given than what we find in the almost contemporary Old English Chronicle (see p. 117), of which a translation follows :

`A.D. MLXXXV. . . . After this the king [William the Conqueror] had a great council, and very deep speech about this land, how it was peopled, or by what men ; then sent his men all over England, into every shire, and caused to be ascertained how many hundred hides were in the shire, or what land the king himself had, and cattle within the land, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. Also he caused to be written how much land his archbishops had, and his suffragan bishops, and his abbots, and his earls ; and—though I may narrate somewhat prolixly—what or how much each man had who was a holder of land in England, in land or in cattle, and how much money it might be worth. So very narrowly he caused it to be traced out, that there was not one single hide, nor one virgate of land, nor even—it is shame to tell, though it seemed to him no shame to do—an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine, was left that was not set down in his writ. And all the writings were brought to him afterwards.'

A specimen of a single, almost random, entry may be given, also translated :

' The king holds Windsor in demesne. . . . Of the land of this manor, Albert the clerk holds one hide and a half, and a third part of one dene ; Walter, son of Other, holds one hide and a half and one virgate, and as much woodland as will serve five hogs for pannage (food). Gislebert Maminot holds three virgates, William Belet one hide, Aluric one hide, and another Aluric half a hide, and the priest of the town one hide and a half, and two sergeants of the King's Court half a hide, and Eudo the steward two hides. In the time of King Edward it was worth 15 pounds, and afterwards 7 pounds, now 15 pounds.'

Domesday has always been held of primary authority in courts of law, and no appeal from it is ever allowed. Before it, our chief authorities for the history of land are separate charters in Latin or Old English ; but from Domesday onward there is a series of full and accurate public documents, the chief kinds of which are as follows.

Knights' Fees (Feoda Militum) were lands—at first about 6,000 in number—held of the king by barons, bishops, monasteries, and the like, with the duty of supplying a certain number of knights, fully equipped, for the king's service. Inquisitions were held from time to time, to ascertain the exact indebtedness of the holders of these fees, and some of these returns are known by distinct titles, as the Black Book of The Exchequer (Liber Niger Scaccarii, A.D. 1166), the Red Book of the Exchequer, Scutage Rolls, and the Testa de Neville (about 1250).

Pipe Rolls (supposed to be so called because from their size and the manner of folding them they looked like long pipes) begin in A.D. 1131, and contain the details of the revenues of the Crown, according to counties, not merely from land, but from every source, together with the public expenditure.

But it is in post-Norman times, from A.D. 1154, that the information becomes really full and unbroken. In the Patent Rolls (so called because they were despatched open, rotuli patentes, as being of a public nature) we find recorded all grants of lands and honours, all pensions and privileges, given by the king to individuals or corporate bodies. The Close Rolls (which were delivered closed up, rotuli clausi, as of a more private nature, or addressed to two or three persons only) are in reality almost as wide in their range as the Patent Rolls, dealing, for instance, with the wardship of minors, mining rights, orders to sheriffs, homage, and treasure trove. It is estimated that the Close Rolls alone, if printed, would fill 450 volumes of 1000 octavo pages each. The Hundred Rolls, of A.D. 1274, are of great importance for local history, containing an inquisition into the state of every hundred (a division of a county), and answers, on oath, to questions on all points that had reference to the public exchequer. They contain about 70,000 personal names, and were followed by other similar sets. The Placita de Quo warranto are a sequel of the Hundred Rolls, and are answers to the question, Quo warranto ? (by what right do you act ?), asked by the king's officers of all who were supposed to have done wrong, or to have not done right, in matters touching the Royal rights and revenues, while the king himself was away at the Crusades. Inquisitiones post mortem were inquiries by a local jury, after a death, to determine, where there was doubt, of what lands the deceased was possessed, on what terms of service, and who the next heir was. Inquisitiones ad quod damnum were held in case of a licence being applied for to alienate lands, and answered the query, " Does it injure the Crown, or any one, if the licence is granted ? ' (Ad quod damnum ? ` To what injury does it tend ? '). There might be a licence needed to build a new mill, and the question would arise, is it too near another ? Would it injure the fishery or river rights to have a new weir ? and the like. Pedes Finium (` feet of fines ') is the title of a large and splendid series of records, which gives a summary (usually written at the foot of the original) of a final agreement (which usually began, Haec est finalis concordia, ` This is the final agreement '), thus pre-serving the essential parts of the document without the interminable series of formal phrases and repetitions in the complete deed.

The above are perhaps the chief classes of our general public records, such as may be consulted in the Public Records Office in London ; but one may mention also the Coroners' Rolls (in cases of accident or sudden death) ; the Registers of Law Courts, such as the Courts of Chancery, King's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer ; the Escheat Rolls (accounts of property which has lapsed to the Crown) ; and, last not least, Parliamentary documents and State papers. So, too, every town has, or might have had, its municipal books, recording council meetings, admissions of freemen and apprentices, and public accounts. But one class of special documents de-serves a fuller account, namely, those connected with the clergy and religious establishments. After Domesday we find an invaluable return, in A.D. 1291, called the Taxatio Ecclesiastica, a valuation in detail of all ecclesiastical property, because a tenth of such revenues had been granted by Pope Nicholas IV. to Edward I., for six years, to defray the expenses of a Crusade. And at the time of the Reformation there was naturally a Valor Ecclesiasticus, which showed Henry VIII. exactly what the Crown received, in lieu of the Pope, in such matters as first-fruits and tenths. Finally, the rolls of the Court of Augmentation dealt with the property of suppressed religious houses. Every large monastery had its Chartulary (or collection of charters copied out at `full length into a large volume), and generally its Register or Chronicle, in which general and local history were found in one chronological series ; and every diocese had its registers of ecclesiastical affairs, disputed rights, and admissions to incumbencies, beginning, in the case of Lincoln, as early as A.D. 1217. Churchwardens' Accounts (from the fifteenth century) and Parish Registers (from A.D. 1538, or more usually from 1558, but often neglected or lost 1) afford endless material for the history of villages, manors and families. All these, and many other classes which might be mentioned, are public, or have a public side ; let us now turn to those which may, by comparison, be termed private.

2. Private or Personal Records

There are four conspicuous kinds of document which may be put under this head,—deeds or agreements, wills, visitations of heralds, and manor- or court-rolls.

A deed by which two parties agree about the disposal of something of value is the most general document known, and in its form, so far as the matter will allow, fairly constant. It generally consists of the following eleven parts, usually before the Reformation written in Latin, which put together make up a complete typical deed :

1. Introduction.

Sciant praesentes et futuri quod ego (or, if a Royal grant, Henricus Dei gratia rex: Angliae Hibernia et Francia omnibus ad quos praesentes literae pervenerint salutem. Noveritis quod nos .. , or the like).

2. Grantor's name. Robertus Godifere.

3. Act of gift.

Dedi et concessi et hac pressenti charta mea confirmavi.

4. Grantee's name.

Henrico de La Birch et heredibus suis.

5. The thing granted.

Unam peciam terra (often with long and accurate description of the property, especially with reference to adjacent properties).

6. Quality of gift (usually ungrammatical).

Habendum et tenendum predictam peciam terra cum omnibus pertinentiis suis pradicto Henrico libere quiete bene et pace imperpetuum.

7. Consideration, rent, etc.

Reddendo inde mihi et heredibus meis unum obolum redditus annuatim die Luna proximo post festum sancti Michaelis.

8. Warranty.

Et ego Robertus et heredes mei warrantizabimus predictam peciam terra contra omnes homines.

9. Sealing.

In cujus rei testimonium tam sigillum meum quam sigillum pradicti Henrici huic scripto indentato alternatim sunt appensa.

10. Witnesses.

His testibus, Radulpho de Woodstock, Rogero de Toeni, Hugone filio Roberti cum multis aliis.

11. Date.

Datum die Vencris proximo post dominicam Quasimodo 1 anno regni Regis Henrici post conquestum quarti septimo.

From this type variations of course occur, according as the deed is a certificate or notice of a fact, a confirmation (in which the grant or grants confirmed are often quoted at full length, preceded by the words ` inspeximus chartam in haec verba ' [` we have seen a charter in these terms '], whence the name inspeximus ' applied to confirmations), a covenant in which both parties have duties to perform, an exchange, a final concord (see p. 172), a letter of attorney (appointing an agent to act on behalf of one party), a writing obligatory (recording a duty or debt, and binding the debtor to fulfil his obligation under penalty), a release (giving up a right), or other forms known to lawyers. An exemplification means simply an official copy of a deed. Some other common terms met with in the description of deeds are Feoffment or Infeoffinent (putting a person in possession of a thing), grants in Frankalmoigne (donations in francam elymosinam, ` as free alms,' usually to a religious house), indentures (when both the grantor's copy of a deed with the grantee's seal and the grantee's copy with the grantor's seal, were written on one piece of parchment, thus and a curved or jagged line (indentura) was cut along the line of dots, so that the two pieces could be for ever identified as fitting precisely into each other when brought together) .

In ancient times personal signature was not required, and even the sign of the cross, by which before the Conquest the signatories attested their presence, was affixed by the scribe of the whole deed ; in fact, not till the fourteenth century do we find royal attestation, not till the fifteenth the signature of a petitioner or party to a deed, and not till the sixteenth actual autographs of witnesses. In England after the Conquest we do not expect to find deeds dated until after A.D. 1290 ; but, on the other hand, undated ones after 1320 are hardly found at all.

Wills are among the most authentic materials of personal history, often abounding in precise information of relationships, age, and condition. Though private documents, they have from early times been deposited or enrolled in various public offices, such as those of the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York. The former collection is now at Somerset House in London, and extends back to the year 1383 ; the York wills go back to 1389 ; but there are numerous lesser offices. Often the old registers of a town contain early wills enrolled at the desire of the testator, in order to preserve the terms of the will from any tampering or possible loss.

Heraldic Visitations, which were held once in every generation in each county from 1530 to 1687, were due to the jealousy with which the right to bear arms was safeguarded. The Heralds' College or College of Arms was specially instituted to preserve this privilege, and to register all recent changes in the line of descent of families. The Visitations were personally conducted by heralds, and every change in or addition to pedigrees was investigated by reference to documents or by evidence on oath. The results were finally copied out and certified and sent up to the College of Arms, and still present the most certain pedigrees which we possess. They are classed with private records on account of their subject-matter.

One very interesting class of documents remains, the Court Rolls of a manor. The descent of the manor is usually the key to the history of a parish or village ; and where the Court Rolls are preserved, we have as clear a picture as can be obtained of the inner life and changes of a district.

It is important to bear in mind that there were two distinct Courts of law which were held within a manor. The first was the Court Leet, the King's Court, properly held by the Sheriff as representing the king, but usually allowed to be held by the tenants on payment of a sum called the Certum Leta. This Court was for public offences against the commonwealth, for felonies, and the like. The other Court was the Court Baron (Curia Baronis), or Court of the Lord of the Manor. This was local, and in it the customs of the particular manor prevailed ; the causes tried in it were offences against the said customs, personal squabbles, actions for non-payment of debts, for assault, for diverting roads, polluting streams, allowing cattle to trespass, brewing bad beer, and the numberless bickerings which prevent life from stagnating in rural districts. The jury were freemen from the manor itself, or at least from the tithing (decenna, whence their name of decennarii, tithing-men) within which the manor might be, and were presided over by the Steward of the Lord. The jury ` presented ' certain facts, which were inquired into, and punishment meted out. Most amusing as well as interesting these glimpses of real life are to an observant eye ; the quaint solemnity of the proceedings, the simple offences, the fresh-air kind of justice done, the world-old yet modern kinds of men and women concerned. Take, for instance, an ordinary (translated) entry from a Court Roll of Cressingham in A.D. 1329 :

(Presentment) of Thomas Buteler for rescue from the servant of Alexander Nally of one pig taken in the corn of Alexander Nally.

Of Alice Brun because she did not allow the ale-tasters to do their duty.

Of Peter le Miller for a hue and cry justly raised upon him by the wife of William le Fuller.

(The fines were 6d., 2d., and 6d. respectively.)

Or this from a Court Roll of Little Barton (in Suffolk, owned by Bury St.Edmund's), dated 1461 :

And they present that Sir Robert Loote, rector of the church there, did trespass on the meadow of the lord called Netemedowe with three horses. Therefore he is fined vjd.

And that John Gooch with his cart, John Goodarde in the usual way, Richard Milton as before, and master Thomas Wellys with his cart, did make a wobbly track at Shakerspatch without a license, where they ought not. Therefore they are fined xijd. each.

And that William Sopere did leap upon John Newman with a pitchfork, against the peace (" fecit insultum super Joh. Newman cum j pitchforke, contra pacem "). So he is fined iijd.

Human nature is recognizable as much in the matter of Essonia (excuses) for not coming to take part in the Court, as in any other part of these records. For there were five recognized excuses—'. Ultra mare, ` I have gone abroad ; ' 2. De Terra Sancta, ` I am on my way to the Holy Land ; ' 3. De malo veniendi, ` I can't manage to come ; ' this was called the ` common excuse ; ' 4. De malo lecti, ` I am confined to my bed ; ' and 5. De servitio Regis, ` the king requires my services.'

It is a thousand pities that more care has not been and is not taken of Court Rolls. Few have been printed, and countless numbers have been destroyed from inability on the part of their owners to see the importance of them. Both they and parish registers should be preserved with all possible care.

Hic locus est meta : liber explicit, atque valete.

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